Not long ago, it was reasonable to think that financial businesses would be the most prominent and most profitable targets of criminal activity. After all, a successful bank robbery could score you tens of thousands of dollars (or more). But these days, it’s another industry facing the brunt of criminal attacks, and it’s one with much more bearing on us as consumers: healthcare.
Ransomware attacks grew three times over last year, with healthcare organizations being the most common sources of attack. These incidents range from low-key and barely noticeable to large-scale hacks that have taken down hospitals for weeks at a time. The WannaCry cyberattack, in particular, was responsible for infecting more than 300,000 computers and devices. It’s no secret that healthcare institutions are glaringly vulnerable to these types of attacks, but the bigger problem is that even with this knowledge, we’re not doing enough to fix the situation.
The value of healthcare data
Part of the cybersecurity problem has less to do with the security flaws present in healthcare systems and more to do with the enormous value of healthcare data. Hospitals and healthcare organizations are tasked with gathering tons of personal details on their patients, including their social security numbers, medications they’re taking, and credit card information. A single patient’s record could be worth up to $1,000, and a large-scale hack could net hundreds, or even thousands of records. Naturally, this makes healthcare organizations a target.
The vulnerability of patients
It’s not just the monetary value of records or the logistical annoyances of recovering from a breach that we need to worry about. In the fields of medicine and healthcare, people’s lives could be at stake. For example, researchers in Israel have demonstrated how easy it is to falsify the presence of a tumor on a volumetric medical scan. Someone with enough gumption to follow through on this kind of attack could manipulate someone to receive treatments that aren’t appropriate for them, resulting in terrible complications.
Even if the quality of care patients are receiving isn’t directly affected, there’s evidence to suggest that 30-day mortality rates rise significantly after a hospital data breach. As hospitals are stretched thin with resources and staff members are more stressed than usual, the quality of care naturally goes down. This makes a cyberattack on a hospital much more inherently dangerous than, say, one on a financial institution.
The rising complexity of healthcare systems
Hospitals are also especially vulnerable because their tech systems are becoming increasingly complicated, and in more ways than one. For starters, medical technology is increasingly relying on an interconnected network of devices. In hospitals, this means nurses and doctors rely on tablets and mobile devices in addition to computers and monitoring equipment. In patients, this means sensors, monitoring equipment, and sometimes even prosthetics that collect information or provide treatments. All it takes is one vulnerability in one device to compromise the integrity of the entire network—and one exploit from 2017 proves that implanted devices like pacemakers are hackable.
This complexity isn’t limited to the security or integrity of devices, either. As our healthcare systems increasingly rely on digital interfaces for patients and personal medical devices, much of the security burden is placed on patients. Patients are the ones responsible for creating, maintaining, and protecting their passwords and login credentials, and may use their medical devices on unsecured home networks. Again, all it takes is one lapse in security from a patient, a doctor, a nurse, or another staff member to cause serious harm.
Misplaced attention on tech upgrades
Hospitals are always eager to get their hands on the latest medical technology, and for good reason. The cost of a state-of-the-art MRI machine is something close to $3 million, and hospitals are willing to pay it if it means better health outcomes for their patients (or, more imminently, a competitive advantage over other hospitals in the area). Meanwhile, as late as 2016, 90 percent of UK hospitals were running Windows XP as their operating system—which, even then, was practically an antique.
Healthcare tech staff disproportionately focus on bigger, better, more functional upgrades, but ignore updates to existing devices and programs. Therein lies the security problem; new devices work well and provide great value, but they don’t make up for the structural weaknesses of older tech on the same network.
The lack of understanding
Much blame can be placed on a lack of understanding in hospitals and other healthcare organizations. Many hospitals don’t have an IT department or a cybersecurity division, and their major decision makers are more focused on improving health outcomes than thinking about security. Even if there is a high-level initiative to review and improve a network, ground-level employees like nurses and physicians may not have the necessary training to conduct best practices for cybersecurity.
Part of this is simply a guidance issue; organizations like the FDA haven’t adequately prepared for the growing complexities of medical technology. Another is an interest issue; healthcare experts got into healthcare because they care about treating and improving people’s lives, not because they like working with computers. Few medical programs spend significant time educating future medical leaders on principles of tech security.
The lack of funding
Protecting against cyberthreats is expensive, especially when dealing with national- or international-scale healthcare organizations, making some leaders reluctant to invest in it. Higher tech security standards would translate to higher prices for patients (which are already egregious), and possibly more internal restrictions on the acquisition of new technologies. However, the alternative is much more expensive; the WannaCry attack cost more than $100 million to clean up when it happened. Not wanting to pay the money to beef up security and put some standards in place is no excuse to not make the initiative.
The bottom line
The problem in healthcare cybersecurity is enormous and complex, and it’s only getting worse. Many hospitals and security organizations are stepping up their efforts to improve security, but they simply aren’t doing enough. There isn’t a quick fix, but it’s obvious we need to start taking action in several areas, including better cybersecurity education for healthcare practitioners, more strategic tech replacement standards, better direction from regulatory agencies, and of course, more funding for IT maintenance.
2 Companies Ready For a Huge Cybersecurity Opportunity
It was always there. But it would be naive to say the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t accelerated the cybersecurity market’s growth pace. With millions of employees still — and perhaps permanently — working from home, many enterprises remain far too vulnerable to hacking and digital security breaches.
The depth of the need for cybersecurity solutions, however, may still not be fully appreciated by investors. That in turn means that cybersecurity providers Palo Alto Networks (NYSE:PANW) and Fortinet (NASDAQ:FTNT) may remain underestimated. Not only are they two of the top names in the business, but each has a security solution available right now for employees connecting to a company’s network from home.
A couple of recent predictions flesh out this opportunity.
Just the beginning
The cybersecurity market is currently worth around $200 billion, according to numbers from Mordor Intelligence, but it’s on pace to grow a bit more than 14% per year through 2025. That’s impressive, particularly compared to other industries’ growth outlooks.
But it’s an estimate that still fails to adequately paint a complete picture of what the right company could do given the opportunity at hand. Even with power players like the aforementioned Fortinet and Palo Alto in place, Mordor says the market remains highly fragmented. Both companies could continue to make acquisitions, achieving economies of scale as they expand.
Even without dealmaking, though, the industry’s rising tide will lift these boats.
Technology market research firm Gartner supplies one of the clearest reasons to expect that tide to keep rising. Last month it opined that “bring your own PC,” or BYOPC, security will be normalized in five years or less. And within 10 years, secure access service edge, or SASE, will be the norm for enterprise-level organizations.
The terms and their acronyms may not mean much to the layperson, but cybersecurity folk may be nodding their heads in agreement. Bringing-your-own-PC security is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than a tech department issuing devices to workers with security features pre-installed, employees procure their own devices and then — hopefully — take all the necessary steps to ensure cloud-based connections are secure. A secure access service edge is a newer digital security theme that creates a networking environment that allows for, among other things, BYOPC.
In some regards, they’re the next step in the natural evolution of connectivity. Gartner may not be overstating things, however, when it suggests the two technologies “will have transformational impact on global businesses within the next 10 years.” In a post-COVID world, Gartner research director Rob Smith explains, “[Cyber] security leaders should expect the need to support BYOPC to be dependent upon a long-term work-from-home strategy, and also expect to support security tools needed for a BYOPC environment.”
In the same vein, technology market analytics outfit International Data Corp. (IDC) recently predicted that by 2024, 60% of the United States’ employees will work remotely — either at home or out in the field with customers and at project sites. That would push the total number of remote workers to more than 93 million, and subsequently expand the likelihood of cyberattacks.
The cybersecurity industry isn’t starting from scratch, however. Both Palo Alto and Fortinet had remote connectivity protection available even before the pandemic took hold.
For Palo Alto Networks, one of those products is Prisma Access, which is a secure access service edge — or SASE — offering that Gartner suggests will become commonplace by 2030. It’s built specifically for mobile users and branch offices that need reliable, safe access to a corporate network. Palo Alto also offers cloud-based SD-WAN, or software-defined wide-area networking, with the help of recently acquired CloudGenix. It’s a testament to the potential of the right sort of dealmaking that allows for bolt-on improvements of the company’s existing capabilities.
As for Fortinet, it’s got a few tools in its mobile cybersecurity toolbox as well, like the FortiGate platform. Among other things, it’s a way of putting a firewall in place, managing virtual private networks that encrypt communications from devices all the way to a company’s servers, and implementing an intrusion prevention system. FortiGate customers also automatically have access to an SD-WAN solution for remote offices or remote employees, and the platform was a key part of last quarter’s growth.
These offerings aren’t exactly brand new, and more are apt to be on the way. What’s new is the sudden, true realization of the need for them. As Gartner’s Rob Smith noted: “Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was little interest in BYOPC. At the start of the pandemic, organizations simply had no other alternative. The urgent need to enable employees to work from home and a lack of available hardware bolstered its adoption globally.” International Data Corp.’s senior research analyst Bryan Bassett expects that adoption has only begun, saying: “To meet the needs of more mobile, remote, and work-from-home workers, U.S. enterprises have indicated that mobile security and mobile management solutions will be top spending priorities going forward.”
While the bullish outlook for these companies is strong, would-be investors in either should note that the predictions from IDC and Gartner are long-term in nature. Gartner’s SASE adoption expectation could take up to 10 years to play out fully. International Data Corp.’s mobile worker outlook looks to the end of 2024. Investors not thinking in multi-year terms may find this opportunity isn’t for them.
Still, the opportunity is real for those willing to wait for it to fully gel. It’s long-term enough, in fact, that investors interested in plugging into it don’t necessarily have to do so today, this month, or even this year.
Emotet Botnet: A Primer for Cybersecurity and IT Pros
With all that’s going on with COVID-19, work-from-home and economic contraction in the U.S. and globally, it’s easy for cybersecurity experts and other technologists to have missed that one of the most destructive malware strains made a surprise return in late July.
Emotet, a botnet with global reach, resurfaced on July 21 after a nearly five-month absence, according to multiple security firms, including Proofpoint and Malwarebytes. Since that time, researchers have recorded at least 800,000 spam messages associated with the malware in countries all over the world, including in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Austria, Germany, Brazil, Italy and Spain.
Waves of malware tend to come and go, but Emotet has developed a unique reputation over the years as it matured from banking Trojan to full-blown menace. When the U.S. Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency issued a warning about the botnet in January, the agency’s analysts warned about its destructive potential.
“Emotet continues to be among the most costly and destructive malware affecting [State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial] governments. Its worm-like features result in rapidly spreading network-wide infections, which are difficult to combat. Emotet infections have cost SLTT governments up to $1 million per incident to remediate,” stated the public CISA alert.
With the current Emotet campaign underway, analysts and experts warn that security and IT teams should be on the lookout for the malware and the possible destructive effects it could have on an enterprise. The campaign is also using the COVID-19 pandemic as a lure to get the unsuspecting to click on phishing emails that help power its spread.
“The campaigns usually include various payloads that have evolved over the years, primarily focused on stealing banking information or funds. Since the return of Emotet this summer, we’ve seen it using COVID-19 themes in the social engineering lures, as well as sending to recipients in a wide variety of countries,” Sherrod DeGrippo, senior director of threat research and detection at Proofpoint and well-known expert on Emotet, told Dice.
“The threat group behind Emotet is one that uses timely lures in campaigns that are truly massive in scale. In some Emotet campaigns we’ve seen over a million messages over the course of a few days,” DeGrippo added.
Emotet: A History
Emotet started life as a banking Trojan in 2014 that mainly stole financial and personal data. Over the next few years, however, the malware evolved into more of a botnet with the ability to infect multiple devices and expand its malicious network. Due to its modular nature, its creators have added new features as time went on, and it continues to evolve to this day.
In addition to the botnet, Emotet also has the ability to act as a dropper (or downloader) that can help plant other malware within a compromised device. In 2019, security experts found a triple threat: Emotet delivering another malware called TrickBot to infected endpoints, which would then download a ransomware variant called Ryuk.
These and other features are one of several reasons why warning bells ring whenever Emotet re-emerges. “Emotet is one of the most prolific malware families of the past five years. It has evolved from being specifically a banking Trojan into malware-as-a-service (MAS) with a distributed botnet infrastructure,” Jared Greenhill, director at Crypsis Group, an incident response and risk management firm, told Dice.
In the latest Emotet campaign that started in July, researchers have found that attacks start with a large-scale spam campaign that delivers phishing emails to as many victims as possible. The messages contain either a malicious attachment, a URL in the email body, or an attachment with a link. These attachments and links then deliver the initial malware infection, DeGrippo said.
If the link or attachment is opened, malicious macros are enabled that launch a PowerShell script that eventually installs Emotet within a compromised device. From there, Emotet can then download other malware. In the latest campaign, DeGrippo and others have found that it attempts to install Qbot—a banking Trojan that is known to infect financial institutions and their customers.
In some cases, the Emotet-laced message appears as part of an existing email chain, making it more likely that someone will click on the malicious link or attachments. These types of built-in social engineering techniques are a key reason why Greenhill recommends additional security training for employees to help spot this type of malware lurking in seemingly legitimate messages.
“One of the reasons Emotet is so effective is, like other types of threats, it begins with phishing tactics, and recent approaches have used brand names the recipient would be familiar with or subjects that have urgency, such as past-due notifications,” Greenhill said. “As we often see, much of the success of this malware begins with users making an error—opening a malicious attachment. A very important remedy to this is rigorous end-user training on spotting malicious emails, attachments, links, and senders, even if the sender appears legitimate.”
While Emotet is more destructive than most other malware, it’s not impossible to fight back and protect people and data alike.
“People can best protect themselves against Emotet by implementing a strong antimalware program within their secure email gateway, in conjunction with user education that reinforces the risks posed by links and attachments,” DeGrippo said.
In its alert, CISA offers several ways to counter Emotet as well as other malware. These include:
Block: Organizations should block email attachments associated with malware, such as .dll and .exe files, as well as attachments that cannot be scanned by antivirus software, such as .zip files.
Implement: Organizations should implement programs such as antivirus programs and formal patch management processes. CISA also recommends implementing a Domain-Based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC) validation system to cut down on spoofed emails.
Segment: Organizations should segment networks and functions to keep attacks from spreading across the network.
Limit: Finally, organizations should work to limit lateral movement throughout their network, which can reduce Emotet’s ability to move from device-to-device.
Others have found their own ways to fight back against Emotet. In August, James Quinn, an analyst with security firm Binary Defense, published a blog post that details how he found a “kill switch” in Emotet that helped reduce attacks earlier this year. That’s one of the reasons the botnet disappeared from the scene between February and late July.
Malware gang uses .NET library to generate Excel docs that bypass security checks
A newly discovered malware gang is using a clever trick to create malicious Excel files that have low detection rates and a higher chance of evading security systems.
Discovered by security researchers from NVISO Labs, this malware gang — which they named Epic Manchego — has been active since June, targeting companies all over the world with phishing emails that carry a malicious Excel document.
But NVISO said these weren’t your standard Excel spreadsheets. The malicious Excel files were bypassing security scanners and had low detection rates.
Malicious Excel files were compiled with EPPlus
According to NVISO, this was because the documents weren’t compiled in the standard Microsoft Office software, but with a .NET library called EPPlus.
Developers typically use this library part of their applications to add “Export as Excel” or “Save as spreadsheet” functions. The library can be used to generate files in a wide variety of spreadsheet formats, and even supports Excel 2019.
NVISO says the Epic Manchego gang appears to have used EPPlus to generate spreadsheet files in the Office Open XML (OOXML) format.
The OOXML spreadsheet files generated by Epic Manchego lacked a section of compiled VBA code, specific to Excel documents compiled in Microsoft’s proprietary Office software.
Some antivirus products and email scanners specifically look for this portion of VBA code to search for possible signs of malicious Excel docs, which would explain why spreadsheets generated by the Epic Manchego gang had lower detection rates than other malicious Excel files.
This blob of compiled VBA code is usually where an attacker’s malicious code would be stored. However, this doesn’t mean the files were clean. NVISO says that the Epic Manchego simply stored their malicious code in a custom VBA code format, which was also password-protected to prevent security systems and researchers from analyzing its content.
But despite using a different method to generate their malicious Excel documents, the EPPlus-based spreadsheet files still worked like any other Excel document.
Active since June
The malicious documents (also called maldocs) still contained a malicious macro script. If users who opened the Excel files allowed the script to execute (by clicking the “Enable editing” button), the macros would download and install malware on the victim’s systems.
The final payloads were classic infostealer trojans like Azorult, AgentTesla, Formbook, Matiex, and njRat, which would dump passwords from the user’s browsers, emails, and FTP clients, and sent them to Epic Machengo’s servers.
While the decision to use EPPlus to generate their malicious Excel files might have had some benefits, in the beginning, it also ended up hurting Epic Manchego in the long run, as it allowed the NVISO team to very easily detect all their past operations by searching for odd-looking Excel documents.
In the end, NVISO said it discovered more than 200 malicious Excel files linked to Epic Manchego, with the first one dating back to June 22, this year.
NVISO says this group appears to be experimenting with this technique, and since the first attacks, they have increased both their activity and the sophistication of their attacks, suggesting this might see broader use in the future.
Nevertheless, NVISO researchers weren’t totally surprised that malware groups are now using EPPlus.
“We are familiar with this .NET library, as we have been using it since a couple of years to create malicious documents (“maldocs”) for our red team and penetration testers,” the company said.